Thursday, March 31, 2011

Compared to What?

In the early 1990s I was teaching at a university in Akita prefecture, northern Japan, and I produced a concert at the school that included famed jazz pianist Les McCann as the headlining act. McCann and his Magic Band were in the area to play a couple gigs at local jazz clubs, and using a mama-san connection in the jazz scene, I’d secured their participation in my own mini-music festival. Of course, I really had no idea what to expect.

The night of the gig, I was really sweating it. A couple local bands and several student groups opened the evening in the 4th floor auditorium of the uni’s main admin building. It was a major effort to set up the place since there was no elevator; all the sound equipment had to be hauled up the seemingly endless staircase. But the real nail-biter was waiting for Les and his band. By 8pm I was freaking out, while certain members of the audience who had paid a steep ticket price were also restless since there was no word of the band's arrival. Still, by landline (pre-cellphones) the mama-san assured me that the band would show. 

Sure enough, just as the act that preceded the Magic Band got onto the stage, a couple vehicles carrying Les and his boys pulled up into the parking lot of the school's main building.  When I heard they had arrived (I had sentries posted awaiting the arrival!), I rushed down the four flights of stairs. There were half a dozen players piled into a van, and Les seated in an accompanying car. I greeted them at the building door. The Man himself, by 1992 a bearded, sumo-sized pianist, seemingly twice the size he'd been when he recorded a startling set at the Montreux Jazz Festival twenty years earlier, was faintly pleasant but a bit standoffish.  And I can still remember how his eyebrows raised at my announcement that there was no elevator up to the auditorium. 

That was all understandable, too, since Les had already played an afternoon gig, and he probably weighed in the neighborhood of 120 kilos. Anyone could have guessed that exhaustion would come easy for a fellow his size. By the time we reached the third floor, the towel around his neck was soaked in sweat, and by the fourth, he was wheezing dangerously. Heart attack city?

As a sort of icebreaker, I told Les I had cold water for him in my office. He looked at me like all he wanted to do was lay down and die. What happened next though was even more than I might have imagined. 

Since my office was on the 4th floor, I had arranged it as a makeshift dressing room, with drinks and a swivel office chair installed for Les to relax in. As we got to my door, the poor headliner looked white as a sheet. Just inside, and with the door closed behind him, he went straight for the comfort of the chair, like a man on a mission --- apparently without a thought—when BAM! All 200+ pounds crashed butt-first to the floor.

Sure enough, the chair's wheels had given way, and it rolled backwards as Les rocked like a boulder off a ledge.

“Sorry, Les,” I feebly offered, then ran calling some of the guys to help drag the big man back up to his feet. He was clearly shaken, but to his credit, instead of complaining, he had a good laugh.

Shortly after that tumble, Les McCann and his Magic Band went on stage and blew the roof off the auditorium. The night, like the song that has made Les most famous, was incomparable!

Check out Les McCann's song and others on the radio program Daddy Peet Expresso, on


Rohan Rajiv said...

Nice. :)

Mark said...


edwinK said...

haha... sounds like a horrible nightmare come true.

Eunice Chew said...

What a story of a sumo pianist! First time I ever heard of such a hilarious incident. I felt that you dealt with the situation really well. In fact, you should organize such a jazz festival in NUS and you can be sure I will be there.


Min Hau Ong said...

Haha! It must have been an awesome experience! Would you consider to organise a similar one in NUS? I will support you!

Ramandeep Singh said...

Hey Brad,
This story is extremely hilarious. I can imagine what you went through from the time you told him that there was no elevator to the moment the chair broke. However, it is quite amazing the way he laughed at himself and kudos to Les for that. There are not many people who can laugh at themselves especially in such situations. A true lesson in humility for all those who have read this post I must say.